When I turned forty, I got a new checked cap.
This is a big deal, since I am not much of a hat guy. The only model of men’s headgear currently sanctioned by our culture, the baseball cap, has never really done it for me. It is functionally useless: warming nothing, keeping nothing dry and shading very little that needs shading. It is, in short, little more than a cloth beak. Conversely the felt fedora, once a staple of American masculinity, does all of the above with infinitely more class but matches nothing else in the modern wardrobe. Wear one casually, and you look like Indiana Jones. Dress up to match it, and you look like Tom Wolfe going slumming. I have always held out instead for a simple checked cap and this year, thanks to my wife, I finally have one. [Thanks, honey!]
Now this is a look that fits me, if I may say so myself. Functional. Adaptable. A little retro. Matches just about anything. A little bit Tom Joad, a little bit geek chic. Wear it in the rain or the sun. Even goes with my glasses. In short, it’s a hat I can wear and forget. Which is a good thing, because I am so tired I very likely will!
You see, in a strange bit of math, this year when I turned forty, my older son also turned four. My little 10 percent is a child who did not sleep through the night for nearly three years, and still gives us a run for our money on nights when he is over-tired. To make matters worse, he now has a co-conspirator in his five-month-old brother who seems more than happy to take turns crying as soon as I get the older one settled. Somehow, they even manage to stagger naps during the day to make sure no one over the age of five is in danger of getting any extra sleep.
What I wouldn’t give for a nap. A real nap. You know the kind: settle down outside, cool breeze, warm sun, falling lightly asleep without fear of being abruptly awakened. When I stop long enough to feel my parental fatigue, an image that often springs to mind is that little peddler from “Caps for Sale” leaning back against the tree-trunk. God, I wish that were me!
Many amateurs mistakenly take Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon” for the ultimate in bedtime reading. Not me. I know better. Sure, that little green room is cozy. But face it, that bunny is just sleepy, not desperately sleep-deprived. Anyone could fall asleep surrounded by kittens and mittens and a little old lady whispering “hush.” When it comes to being tired, however, bone-tired, my-brain-hurts-didn’t-I-used-to-know-calculus tired, walking-up-and-down-the-streets-when-nobody’s-buying-caps-and-having-no-money-for-lunch tired, I tip my hat to Esphyr Slobodkina’s “Caps for Sale” any night of the week!
I mean just look at this guy. Carries his wares on his head. Hasn’t sold anything all day (“not even a red cap”). So what does he do? He takes a walk in the country to distract himself from his suffering. When even that fails to do the trick, and he finally succumbs to sleep, a nice nap in the sun still sees him wearing all seventeen hats lest he lose one and his livelihood.
Pretty good metaphor for parenting, come to think of it.
The funny thing about this book is how calming that image is. For a starving day-laborer collapsing from fatigue in an uncomfortable posture, he looks decidedly peaceful, even serene. Aside from feeling jealous of the little guy, whenever I read this book to my kids, I cannot help but see in this illustration an echo of another iconic image from the Eastern tradition, that of the Buddha seated beneath the Bodhi Tree.
This is the moment, as I understand the faith tradition, when Gautama Siddhartha achieves enlightenment. Having navigated the world’s attachments for years trying in vain to slip free of the root causes of suffering amidst the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth (“samsara”), this is the moment when he awakens to Buddha consciousness and to a transformed experience of the true nature of all things: namely, that all being is shared, that the divisions giving rise to our sense of a “self” separate from any other is nothing but illusion. The word “bodhi,” in fact means “awakening.” Ironic, then, that it comes to play in this children’s book illustration of a nap.
As unlikely as it seemed, the more I read this book, the more this likeness seemed intentional. There were simply too many similarities to be mere coincidence: the posture, the serenity, the landscape. Even the little heart-shaped leaves traditional to depictions of the Bodhi Tree appear in her illustrations. In this simple tale of the tired peddler, could the illustrator have knowingly invoked one of the world’s most famous religious images? The connection seemed so tenuous, given the age of the book. I scoured the biographical notes at the end of our collected edition to find out how it could be possible.
It turns out Esphyr Slobodkina was more than a children’s illustrator. Born in Siberia in 1908, she was also a noted American designer and abstract artist with works hanging in the Smithsonian, Metropolitan and Whitney museums. Many of her works for children are based on traditional tales, and her classic about the peddler and the cap-stealing monkeys was apparently based on a folktale she herself traced to a South American Dutch colony called Paramaribo. Quite a pedigree, but nothing that suggested an obvious nod to Buddhist sources as a visual inspiration.
Puzzled, I looked her up on Wikipedia and there found my shortcut to enlightenment. It turns out that during the 1917 Russian Revolution, her family emigrated from Siberia… to Harbin, Manchuria before she arrived in the U.S. in 1929! Suddenly, it became clear. I know very little of her life and work beyond a few of her picture books. Still, I can’t help now but imagine this early American cubist painter encountering China as a frightened and curious nine-year old girl after fleeing Siberia in a scene reminiscent of “Doctor Zhivago.” How did the storyteller’s eyes, shaped by the folk art traditions and iconography of Russian Orthodoxy, make sense of the vastly different stories she encountered there?
I think one answer to that question is her napping peddler. With the China connection making the Buddha archetype that much more plausible in her work, it is easy to see another visual influence from her Siberian heritage at work right alongside it.
The visual traditions of the Orthodox Church would have been a visible part of village life. Regardless of faith tradition, the young Esphyr would have been shaped by the conventions of iconography and carried its visual narratives with her into exile. With “Caps for Sale” open in one hand, I find it hard to believe that this particular icon would have been unfamiliar to her: the ampelos, or grapevine. It is a figurative depiction of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John:
I am the true vine…you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.
One of the gospel’s famous “I am” passages, this symbol of the vine stresses the interpenetration of the human and Divine life. In the language of this tradition, essential Christian spirituality is understood as a participation in a larger life beyond one’s own. The communion of saints, and through them even the prayerful viewer of the icon, are nothing more than branches of Christ himself. Moreover, the icon carries another layer of allegory in that it is often referred to as the “Tree of Life,” a reference to the other, unsampled tree in the Garden of Eden, whose fruit would have bestowed eternal life. In the language of icons, it is a transformation of Divine suffering. The Tree of Life is the crucifixion seen from the other side of the mirror. What to earthly eyes would seem a way to death is nothing but the path to life for all things.
Put it all together: reclining Buddhas and peddlers, monkeys and budding saints. Clearly, Esphyr had more than one tree taking root in her visual imagination. Consciously or not, what Esphyr Slobodkina paints for our children in “Caps for Sale” is a hybrid image of universal significance. Beneath their community-specific themes, both the Bodhi Tree and the Tree of Life speak of the interconnectedness of being, and through awakening to that experience, the transformation of suffering.
As a Catholic, I am fully aware there are vast differences in Christian and Buddhist orientations to that reality, but the shared aspiration goes beyond either tradition alone. That we belong together, and that our suffering diminishes with our centrality of self, is important to learn. It is even more important to teach, especially to children in a way that gives context to their family’s own traditions and struggles. Esphyr Slobodkina’s book does exactly that with primary colors and gentle monkey-see, monkey-do humor. An eternal survival truth from two world traditions slips quietly under the radar every night, no matter the language or creed of the reader. Perhaps most importantly, somehow, deep under the story of the symbols, it reminds parents to “stay awake” themselves. Especially the tired ones.
Saturday morning, the day of the birthday party. It is 5:38 a.m. and both of my treasures are awake and ready for action. Somehow we survive the long, tearful six hours before escaping to a nearby play space where we will host his preschool friends and enjoy a few moments of relatively grown-up conversation with other parents, and each other, while the children played. I notice the coffee we brought for parents is especially popular this morning
After two hours, the last of the kids are played out, fed, filled with sugar and saying their polite goodbyes. Maybe, I think, just maybe he’ll give us a nap today, for sure. He’s got to be tired by now. Even he’s got to be feeling that early start. As the last of the parents leave, and the echoes still, the recliner in the quiet reading corner of the play space suddenly looks especially appealing. Just as I settle in to get off my feet for a moment, along comes the birthday boy.
“Daddy, read me a story,” he says.
“Okay, buddy. Let’s see what they’ve got on the shelf.”
© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.